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How Automated Transportation Will Change Our Lives

A prototype Tesla self-driving truck.

January 23, 2018      

Summer 2040 and automated transportation on a U.S. interstate: ”Ma’am, I’m sorry to pull you over, but I’m not getting a ping back from your vehicle’s transponder. Are you letting your onboard autopilot drive the vehicle?”

“Officer, I’m driving in a safe fashion, not exceeding the speed limit. Why is there a problem?”

“With all due respect, you must let your onboard computer do the driving on interstate highways. It’s now the law, and it’s safer both for you and your vehicle….”

Diverse technologies are coming together to create a new era in travel. Robotic vehicles have been on the road for years in Europe, and new vehicle designs and automated transportation models are being developed across the globe. The nature of the technological trends behind these changes are well illustrated by the new Tesla trucks recently unveiled by Elon Musk.

Tesla Semis are better characterized as freight-carrying mobile data networks than simply as computerized trucks. Pioneering vehicle design elements as well as data management innovations are blending in ways that create new economic models for transportation of freight.

Tesla projects that its trucks will operate at lower costs. The drag coefficient of the Tesla Semi is 0.36, well below that of a diesel truck, at 0.65 to 0.70, and it beats even the Bugatti Chiron race car, at 0.38. An aerodynamic front, side flaps that map to the freight trailer, and a flat cab bottom greatly decrease the energy needed to push the truck through the air, decreasing transportation costs.

An electric motor is stationed at each of the four rear wheels that power the cab. Computer control dynamically adjusts the torque to eliminate jackknifing, the worst nightmare of a trucker.

The batteries are carried in the floor pan to lower center of gravity and reduce the probability of a rollover. The Tesla Semi features automatic lane changing.

In an emergency, it’s designed to automatically come to a halt and contact local authorities. These features vastly enhance safety not just for the trucks themselves, but also for other vehicles and their occupants.

There is no transmission, brake pads, emissions scrubber, or differentials to break down or be maintained. Braking recharges the batteries. The Tesla Semi has a 500-mile range at maximum gross weight (80,000 lb.) at highway speeds.

Tesla guarantees inexpensive charging 24/7 based on its solar-powered and battery-backed megachargers, and full charging can take place on a trucker’s break. Musk has claimed that convoys of Tesla Semis can transport freight at rates that are competitive even with shipment by railroad.

While America’s approximately 2 million truckers are legitimately concerned about their livelihoods, electric, connected, and autonomous vehicles are likely to change their profession. On the one hand, autopilot features could relieve the drudgery of long-haul drives, improve safety, and address impending shortages due to retirement. On the other hand, they could threaten jobs of proud people who haven’t needed a college education to make a living wage.

Pepsi and UPS have already placed orders for hundreds of Tesla Semi trucks.

The global race to next-gen automated transportation

Scania automated truck

Scania automated truck

In the broader context, there are many automated transporation centers across the country working on self-driving cars and driverless trucks.

“There are several important automated vehicle initiatives and activities under way in Florida,” said John Lambert, an autonomous systems consultant and research associate at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training. “These include annual Automated Vehicles Summits, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership — one of the 10 U.S. Department of Transportation designated Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds — several residential communities introducing shared-mobility autonomous electric vehicles, and urban automated vehicle programs associated with Florida Smart Cities initiatives.”


Volvo autonomous truck

Volvo autonomous truck

Trends in automated transportation for freight as well as people are global. In Sweden, Scania is a leading provider of automated trucking across Europe. It is working with Toyota on robotic truck “platoons” that will efficiently move freight around the port of Singapore.

Daimler also plans to test platooning on U.S. roads.

Volvo is developing self-driving trucks that will operate 1,320 meters (4,330 ft.) underground in narrow mine tunnels in the Kristineberg Mine in northern Sweden. It plans on testing them for “hub-to-hub” intralogistics.

We can expect a continuing acceleration in the pace of automated transportation R&D in what now appears to look more and more like an international race.

About the author: Tom Atwood is the executive director of The National Robotics Education Foundation, and is a director of the AUVSI Florida Peninsula Chapter. He was editor in chief of Robot magazine, a former print bi-monthly, from 2006 through 2014.

John Lambert also contributed to this article. He has been a leader in autonomous and robotics systems for over 15 years, serving on the board of directors of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) for 10 years, including two years as the President and Chairman of the Board.